Top 5 ways to manage conflict at work

Conflict at work is the number 1 biggest stress factor for those signed off from their work. I covered those stresses in my last post. So here’s my top 5 ways to keep conflict to a minimum at work:

1. Be generous with information

It’s a challenge to stay in relationship with a colleague when they can’t do their job as effectively because they don’t have all the information. When projects, teams, schedules or leadership change make sure everyone who needs to know – bosses, peers, direct report, PAs – has the information and the context. If at all possible inform your network before the decision is done and dusted because there may be knowledge around that, if shared in a timely way, could influence a richer outcome for all.

2. Name the challenge

If I had a pound (or a dollar) for the number of times I heard a professional not take accountability for something not going 100% to plan I’d be … well, richer than I am right now. Here’s how to name a challenge: ‘I would be more effective next time if I:

  • develop my communication skills’
  • shared more information before the meeting
  • ask for contributions from the board, the team, our customers in time to influence the outcome
  • learned how to use that software more efficiently
  • was completely prepared around the numbers before I make a decision
  • listened more and talked less
  • let go of a bit more control and perhaps delegated some of the tasks to other departments who’re better informed

When you’re in the business of taking responsibility for your contribution you’re in the business of successfully being able to refine your skills to get a better result next time. Blame is exhausting, demoralising and  part of ‘the old game’.

3. Respect difference

It’s comfortable to surround yourself with people who agree with your style and those who affirm to each other how right they are. It’s also a sure sign that the business you’re in will have a shorter life-cycle than a competitor with a healthy culture of challenging, debating, refining processes, and exploring new markets, clients, systems, team mixes and partnerships. It’s not necessarily about having a mix of age, gender, culture, belief, sexual orientation, mental & physical ability or faith groups among your employees (although that’s a good start), it’s more about having an openness to feedback and new suggestions whether from employees or from customer.

What worked historically may not be a guaranteed formula for the product or marketplace to come. Developing a culture of many right ways is a formula for reducing conflict. Stepping away from black and white thinking and embracing infinite shades of grey!

4. Use time as a tool

It’s tempting to want to have a conversation or a decision concluded in a first meeting or by the close of play today. Information or conversations that make you uncomfortable are often pointing to areas that you many not have considered or may not be as familiar with as your professional norm. Ask yourself ‘where is there value in further considering this point’; ‘how can I test to see if what’s being said makes business sense’; ‘how can I learn to listen more un-judgementally’. And then give it a day or two – everything softens. Just because a conversation had a difficult outcome last time doesn’t mean that’ll be the case next time you try. Ultimately everyone finds conflict stressful, so use time to allow all parties to find a peaceful way forward.

5. Take nothing personally

Most people don’t mean to offend or challenge. Communicating with tact and being good with change and difference are skill sets; they can take years to develop and even then they’re constantly in need of refinement because business, diversity and social acceptability are moving, changing entities. Developing a mindset of ‘allowing’ is part of the process of mastery in leadership and professionalism. It’s not reasonable to go through life or work expecting never to be offended. When the times do come (and they will)  this STOP method is often a good prompt:

  • Stop for a moment before you speak
  • Take 3 deep breaths and smile (if you can)
  • Observe what’s just been said; ask ‘why am I reacting to that’
  • Proceed with compassion

Mastery in handling conflict is not about doing it better than other people, it’s about doing it better than you did last time.

An executive coach in London: mine your diamonds

There’s something very privileged about the job of an executive coach – especially an executive coach in London. Those coaches that are sought after by executive from around the world all have one thing in common … word’s got round that they get results. When the time comes a leader doesn’t care if an executive coach went to the best coaching school, is accountable to a professional federation, or if they themselves earned multiple-7-figures in banking, media or science before changing careers.

A leader knows this: ‘you got results for my friend/colleague/associate – and I’d like you to do the same for me please’.  Simple. It’s an executive coach’s skill-set that counts. Can that coach make a speedy difference in your personal and professional life, with your mindset, your communication skills, your clarity about what you want in your future, your overall physical, mental and emotional success? Yes? So, hire them … now.

I helped a friend get her CV up to date recently – it was impressive. My only comment was ‘take your school results off your resume; experience has superseded the need for them’. It’s the same with an experienced executive coach – 15 year and 1000s of clients down the line, they have an intuition, a knowing and a set of unique tools that are so deeply entrenched in them getting results with their talented leaders in diverse industries they probably can’t even tell you what some of those tools are … they just ‘be’ coaching all day every day.

I see this in my leadership clients sometimes too. They can be so busy proving to others that they’re worthy – reading the latest leadership books, putting their teams/organisations up for awards, getting the next letters after their names (MA, PHD, MBA) – that they’ve missed the uncut diamonds just waiting to be mined inside of themselves. This is no touchy-feely kind of treasure but a profound, extraordinary sense of what a leader (CEO, MD, board member, senior director – whoever) can contribute to this time and space that no one else on the planet can.

When you actively mine those diamonds, no approval or qualifications will have prepared you for what the future can look like. You’ll live on purpose. You’ll progress though life living out of that purpose, speaking from that place, contributing from it and inspiring others. You’ll respect that although your paths are crossing with tens or hundreds of others at this very moment, their destiny isn’t yours and and some point they’ll likely uncover their own diamonds and move on into their own inspired space.

Why am I highlighting London as an executive coaching hub amongst every other international city? Mainly I suppose because that’s where I personally have had the honour of working with the most diverse range of clients I could imagine: young, old, men, women, limited (until I worked with them!), empowered, upscalers, downsizers, solopreneurs, leaders of startups and generations-old corporations.  Each extraordinary. Every one of them with diamonds now well-and-truly mined, designed, polished and sparkling with light.

Successful leadership – genuinely be yourself

‘What does it take to be successful in top leadership?’, I’m asked by a client about to step up to an MD-on-the-board role. And I found my usual coach approach of ’empower the client to discover’ went right out the window. ‘If you really want to lead with style’, I said, ‘then genuinely be yourself’.


My experience has often been that by the time you, as a senior executive, are invited to be part of the elite leadership team that make up the board of a large corporate, it’s your character, experience and intuitive creativity that are really being called on.

You’ve done the journeying; the one that starts in the first years learning the formulas for acceptance which allow you to integrate into the company structure. As a team member you had to learn how to get on with colleagues, how to keep time, meet deadlines, produce results and communicate clearly, respectfully and using the language of the organisation.

Then you moved up to management; you learned the skills that allowed you to communicate clear goals, to motivate, to listen well, to spot your team member’s strengths and to influence their thinking as well as that of peers, directors and clients. You met deadlines and achieved results.

As a director, you felt the pressure and responded. You developed to know how to champion your business sector within the overall company vision. You inspired those around you to think more creatively, you knew which were the quick wins and which opportunities were best played out over a longer, more strategic time period. You worked out that to consciously invest in your own development at this point meant you could work less (yet smarter) and earn more. You hired teams knowledgeably and inspired with wisdom.

So now you’ve done your time, you’re ready for board level and your role from here is to oversee the business of a whole country or the negotiating of billion-pound contracts.

You’re part of a leadership team that together steers a healthy course of growth for products, services, customers and employees alike. What’s different from here is that there’s less instead of more structure because the market isn’t defined by past results it’s created by honoring the future. It’s time to downplay some of the rigidity that got you there and up-play some of the true you.

Successful leaders, over time, learn how to trust their  intellect, their emotional intelligence and their intuition. The investment of time and personal & professional development has been focussed for the boardroom for a decade or more. From here your ability to create and to influence from a place of integrity and uniquely you-ness is massively leveraged. Competitors, customers and the rest of the company are watching and learning from your style. You may not know it yet, but in your part of the corporate world … you’re already a super-star!

Keeping it simple

As an executive coach, I’m sometimes called on when a leader, manager or company has too much going on – people, projects, development, deadlines, decisions – and they’ve passed the tipping point of working to full effectiveness. It’s not a weakness to have said ‘yes’ to so many things (or, more likely, for additional responsibilities to have been given to you because there was no one else to take them on) but too much complexity never delivers effective business results.

A call for your executive coach is a call to streamline and to simplify.

Earlier this week I had a conversation with a writer and film director. There were about 8 projects he could easily invest time in – networking, event organising, putting together his next creative team – there’s always so much going on. I asked him – why do you do what you do? He said ‘I love to write. And I love to create.’ I asked him – knowing that, what are your priorities today? He said ‘To finish this script. To get the movie made.’ And even simpler than that? … ‘To finish this script’.

Sometimes there’s a really obvious right next move; often it’s one that only you can do. That’s why it’s on your list and no-one else’s.Everything else you’re investing time in is a distraction, or a subconscious procrastination because it knows that the things only you can do will create the biggest ripple effects – and that in turn will change your world.

There’s a classic story (which is worth repeating …) about a professor who held up to his students an empty glass jar. Into it he placed some large rocks up to the rim. He then help up the jar and said ‘is it full?’. The students nodded ‘yes’. Next the professor took out a bag of pebbles and poured them into the jar. The pebbles found their way in around the spaces of the large rocks. ‘Is it full now?’ he asked. The students nodded ‘yes’. The professor then took out a bag of sand. He poured the sand into the jar and it filled in the spaces around the pebbles. He held up the jar, ‘Is it full now?’. The students nodded ‘yes’. The professor took out a beaker of water, he slowly poured it into the glass jar. The water meandered its way around the spaces of the rocks, the pebbles and the sand until it reached the rim of the jar. ‘Ok, so now it’s full’, said the professor, ‘So, what’s the lesson’?

One student raised her hand and said ‘Is it that we can achieve more than we think – but sometimes have to find new ways to do so?’. ‘A good answer, anyone else?’ said the professor. Another student put up his hand, ‘Could it be that if we assume a question means ‘more of the same’ we’re missing an opportunity?’. ‘Another good answer’ said the professor, ‘And here’s the lesson I want you to take away from today: I could only put as much into this glass jar if I started with the big stuff. In any other order, this quantity of rocks, pebbles, sand and water could not be contained. Prioritise the big things into your life – health, fitness, a vision, connection – and all the rest will fall into place around it’.

As an executive coach, I couldn’t have put it better myself!

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci

Executive Leadership – It’s Different Now …

When I took my first job in the corporate publishing industry over twenty years ago the culture was very different to what I know from the various corporates I deliver executive leadership coaching to now. In the 90s there was still a sense of having to do your time. You most likely had to have a university degree before you worked your way up from assistant to manager and from there to director and onward (if you hadn’t keeled over) to the board of the company. Normal was for that process to take decades! Super-dullsville!!

Move forward to 2012 and there’s a different type of leadership developing. It give less weight to who you know and what’s your background and more to meritocracy, personal passion, drive and accountability. With the right education – and that doesn’t have to  mean university –  relevant experience and, most importantly, strong personal and professional skills, leaders in corporates can achieve recognition and directorships in their late 20s and early 30s.

A few (but an increasing number) are going out on their own and leading multi-million (and billion) pound operations before their thirtieth birthday. Here’s an important question though: is it more impressive to be a CEO at 35 than it is at 55 years old?

My answer … ‘no’.

Heres’ what’s truly impressive: any person – young, middle aged, pensioner, male, female, any culture, any socio-economic background – investing in themselves to a point where they recognise the keys of a true leader: vision, integrity, collaboration, transparency, enablement, compassion and gratitude.

The most frequent challenge I see in delivering executive leadership coaching is when a leader has forgotten that their role is to serve. A product or service will only thrive when customers, clients, readers, listeners, viewers have a happy experience of it. And the company itself can only deliver that when their designers, writers, developers, marketeers, sales agents and operations directors are bought into a vision and empowered to deliver.

It’s always about people, it’s always about evolving (an idea, a brand, a way of distributing), it’s always about a mindset of adventuring and seeing new opportunities. If courage and clarity are modeled in a CEO that spirit will filter out to the directors and their management teams as will honesty, respect and ego-lessness.

My 20 years ago experience was so much based around a fear & lack model too (what’s in it for me) – you had to do as instructed by your manager because she was following a mandate from her director. It was like an extension of school.

Today though, the most dynamic companies out there use a model of respect and abundance – CEOs acknowledging that they don’t hold all the solutions but they do know how to hire creative thinkers and dynamic communicators and invest in their expansion over a given term.

My greatest satisfaction in executive leadership coaching is to have a corporate decision maker remember his or her own talents, creativity and courage. To get clear once again about changes and choices; because when they’re inspired they’re inspiring.

A CEO’s legacy

Leaders define success in any number of ways – increasing turnover, launching innovative products, hiring world-class teams, going global, changing lives.

Some CEOs are credentialed and experienced to the hilt; others are risk takers and their own best PR machine. Some step in to lead a share-held company; others start from the ground up turning millions into billions in a single decade. Whatever their style and character, every CEO holds the intention that they leave a company and its people – employees and clients – healthier, happier and richer for them having been involved.

How do you train for leadership though? What are the lessons? Can anyone make it to the top of a medium or large company? Is it about qualifications, contacts, networking, character, good-fortune, divine-interventions? Who knows … in reality a heady mix of all of it probably.

The skills of a good CEO include:

  • awareness – what attracts a customer to their brand and how do we provide more of that
  • advanced people skills – spotting talent and influencing and motivating with sincerity
  • a vision for the future of the organisation – its products & services, its people and its customers & clients

Exceptional skills would be:

  • servant leadership – a proactive empathy with each person involved in the business cycle and an full-time investment in empowering their greater expression personally & professionally
  • active life-long learning – where personal development is ongoing and equally sought out in times of challenge and of success
  • collaborative mindset – where it’s not about ‘more for us’ it’s about ‘more for all’ – where knowledge, resources and route-to-market are shared in order that financial and environmental benefits further reward the customer  as well as the companies’ involved

And those leaders who move forward the fastest and surest:

  • have an exceptional leadership team supporting the shared company vision
  • actively expand their ceiling of understanding – intellectually (where are the next technical and people innovations coming from), inspirationally (how do I manage this newest team dynamic to continue to sustain high performance in my directors), intuitively (how do we best respond to the rapidly changing market place, purchasing styles and global clientelle) – and put in place stimulus that keep them thinking at the edge of their comfort zones (mentors, executive coaches, what-if hubs, mastermind groups)
  • cultivate a culture of creativity, diversity, authenticity and integrity – which cascades from the CEO through the leadership team to the mangers, teams, collaborating companies and out to a market which responds in kind by repeatedly investing in the products and services of that brand.

More for all and less to none – that’s an overall winning CEO legacy!

Coaching conscious leaders

It takes an aware and bold leader to continue to step into areas of discomfort as they stretch themselves in the name of personal & professional development. They know already the link between self development and higher results – and they make conscious decisions to commit the time and effort to the ongoing refinement of thoughts, words, actions, skills.

Most leaders I’ve worked with are:

  • Clear thinkers – the conversations they’re having in the moment have a ‘how is this contributing to the biggest future’ slant on them
  • Resilient – they don’t take knock-backs personally. They learn, adjust, get up and approach again from a different angle
  • Risk takers – the next steps are calculated and when the key people are in the position they’re going

Beyond this awareness are servant leaders who in addition:

  • Engage their heart – they consider the individuals, they go beyond ‘biggest future’ to ‘legacy’
  • Emit authenticity – they’re healthy, disciplined, inspired and conscious that ‘all of it’ (people, attitude, ethos, standards, respect …) contributes to ultimate success and results
  • Live accountably – there’s no blaming; just the highest personal standards of clarity, impeccable speech & motivation and they ‘be the change they want to see’

In a recent conversation I heard this: ‘most of the adults I work with use the same emotional  strategies they were using in their teens’. Thankfully that’s not my own experience with my clients, but I get what he meant in saying that.

If you take 100% responsibility for evolving into the sort of person who can be, do, have and achieve the things you dream about, you can experience the freedom that goes with it; because then everything’s something you can do something about.

Coaching conscious leadership is tough head, heart & soul work. Persistence in strengthening those skill-sets though brings with it unparalleled results, extraordinary rewards and individuals who literally become beacons in their lifetime.

CEO coaching … leaders who lifelong learn

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it asked by corporate leaders from directors, to board members to CEOs  “but why would I need coaching … I’m doing everything right”. To which I reply “you wouldn’t be at your level of success if you weren’t doing everything right. And I work with achievers not because there are issues, but because there’s always unreleased potential”.

A founding father of the US, Benjamin Franklin said, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”

A noted polymath was old Franklin which means he had a great deal of knowledge about a wide range of topics. He was known for his considered opinion, his wisdom, his diplomacy and his natural ability to lead and to inspire others. I’m guessing he meant it then, when he also said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”

In metaphysics there’s a law called ‘the law of perpetual transmutation’. It means that all things physical and non-physical exist in a constantly state of change – expanding, reducing, evolving. There’s never nothing happening. Nothing stays the same. The universe’s default is transformation.

The most successful leaders, managing directors, CEOs on the planet know all about this law. You’d never hear them say ‘I’m complete; all the things on my list are ticked; we’ve reached every goal I ever had for myself, the company, the customers, the systems, the employees and the products & services… so, yeah. We’re done’.

Because, too right they’d be ‘done’! Done gathering new ideas; done sensing what’s next for the marketplace; done navigating the company’s best talent towards unearthing new opportunities.

There IS no ‘done’ in the life-cycle of successful leaders within progressive organisations. Personal growth & progress = greater team achievements = product & service improvements  = ongoing business success; just like Franklin said it would.

Every individual leader is called to be creative and to lead and expand themselves and their business in a way that’s unique to them. There are no co-incidences in any man or woman’s rise to the helm of a notable corporate company to pioneer a new chapter for its tribe. Directors who actively develop integrity, respect, wisdom, a sense of themselves, and a healthy relationship with risk will thrive.

Lifelong learning is a commitment. There are no right or wrong ways to go about it – study a formal course, hire an executive coach, read, listen, watch, blog, join a mastermind – your style, your choice. But it is a conscious decision to walk this path – you cannot inherit leadership success. The results show in each of us to a depth and effectiveness equal to the hours invested in developing the craft.

I leave you with an Irish saying which is up there, in my opinion, with the wisdom of Mr Franklin: “You’ve got to do your own growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was.”

‘I Wanted to Design; Now I Lead’ …

What happens when the thing you loved doing the most – the reason you stepped up for your chosen career – is no longer present in your job?

I’ve spoken to directors who were designers, managers who were mechanics, and leaders who were lifeguards – all of whom have progressed far enough in their careers that the activity that made them stand out  in the first place has been downsized to almost zero and replaced with leadership responsibilities primarily comprising of strategy and motivating others.

It’s not entirely a bad thing. And it could easily be called ‘natural career progression’. If it describes you then know this; stepping forward into leadership is best when:

  • you’re still involved with people who are doing the thing you loved – and you can inspire them
  • the knowledge you acquired developing the skill-set of your passion can continue to be shared
  • by doing so, you discover something more about yourself that you couldn’t have aspired to at the outset of your career journey

I don’t know any career newbees who when asked ‘what would you like to be’, they answer ‘A leader’, ‘A CEO’, or ‘A board director’. Instead they aspire to be architects, clothes designers, marine engineers, environmental scientist, flower importers – you know? Things that directly link them to the product or service they want to offer to others.

My question is this: if leadership is naturally what we all progress towards then how come we don’t:

  • talk about it to our students and new starts to prepare them for going beyond their ‘first stage’ career
  • equip our directors with a full leadership skill set in as much detail as we would a doctor
  • support leaders constantly so that in their rising to the top of our organisations, they continue to exude the creativity and innovation that we know they inherently own because we saw it displayed in their ‘stage 1’ passion

When a company’s leaders are disciplined and successful, but not 100% passionate about the role they’ve progressed to, not only does the organisation lose their return on investment in that person, they also haemorrhage possibility, opportunity and competitive edge.

No one would drive a car with a leak in the petrol tank – it limits the speed and potential of you getting from A to B. So why do we accept a reduced performance in our most valued and invested-in employees?

To get way out in front in 2012, here’s where I believe the treasure lies:

  • FOCUS on your key 10-20 performers and, especially if they’re outstanding, invest further in them (coaching, mentoring, enabling)
  • CREATE (or access) a platform which brings together leaders from different, non-competitive disciplines and companies to share stories that inspire and prompt radical, new thinking and stimulating possibilities (the theory: ideas worth sharing)
  • TALK! If you’re an HR Director or Talent Manager, get out there and do the rounds with your board members and fellow directors – find out the development they’d most value.
  • TALK! If you’re a director or leader in your business, go and find your Learning & Development contact and ask them what the possibilities are for you to actively evolve yourself and your results this year
  • TALK! If you’re from an organisation where you know there’s a valuable conversation to be had with a counterpart in a non-competitive organisations, pick up the phone, call him/her and get the revolution started.

When enough’s enough: business leaders going AWOL!

Absent Without Leave (AWOL) is a military term used when a soldier is absent from where he/she should be but without intent to desert.

I started this week with a list of ‘must do’s’ deadlined for the end of this month. Program development, video re-records, radio show interviews, updates from my team … all this amongst doing the one thing I love most in my business  – executive coaching with my amazing leadership, business owner and professionals clients!

I looked at the list on Monday morning, looked at the spaces in my schedule this week and you know what I did? – I scrumpled the list up tightly and binned it. ’I’m only going to do what I love this week’ I said.

So, in the gaps on Monday I finished reading ‘The Bond’ by Lynne McTaggart. In the gaps on Tuesday I started reading my first Marshall Goldsmith book (hmmm – me likey!). Wednesday followed pattern and was rounded off with an hours drive south to have supper with an inspiring friend I hadn’t seen in nearly a year.

On my drive back north through the Fife fields & farmland I just had this massive sense of gratefulness. The sun was shining on the half-harvested barley fields, I was tapping back into a sense of creativity that’s been the catalyst for up-levelling my business on more than one occasion over the past decade, and my calmness quotient was overflowing because I CAN go AWOL once in a while and everything won’t come crashing down around me.

But what if you don’t work for yourself and you’re not the boss? What if you’re in a corporate role, directing a team, with projects to complete and accountable for meeting targets and the company depends on your results? Is AWOL an option?

It’s a tough one to answer. In my 10 years of coaching executives I haven’t met a single professional who hasn’t at some point considered jumping ship or initiating an ‘extreme career change’. Some, have been on the edge of quitting, are disillusioned, or just down-right exhausted from a no-respite, limited-appreciation corporate culture.

Question is … where does the responsibility lie for the intellectual, emotional and spiritual health of a workforce? Is it with a business to ensure all it’s leaders remain engaged and motivated? Or with the individual to manage their ongoing career goals within their overall life expectations? A bit of both, however, my experience would encourage the latter – it can only be YOU who decides what works best for you and only you can know fully the elements of your life that impact your decision to stay, go or re-design your position.

Here’s what I also know to be true:

  • Getting clear about what you want – hours, pay, projects, team make up, opportunities to progress, increase or decrease in responsibilities, reporting lines, work-life balance – is the key to being able to communicate that over time to your business. If you don’t know, they can’t help you.
  • Negotiating regular professional changes inside your company – preferably while you’re calm enough to be factual and highlight the benefits on all sides – keeps you and your company fresh and constantly looking for a collaborative and positive future.
  • Extending flexibility as individually required within your team enhances their motivation to work and, by extension, your satisfaction because more is achieved in less time.

The lesson here: AWOL in corporate cultures is for extreme cases only. And WAY before you reach that stage … get thinking, get talking, get feeling; take responsibility, and take action … and get an independent professional involved. Executive coaches are here to support leaders each step until they’re entirely living their Personal & Professional Freedom!